The Price of Snake Oil

In my fruit bowl are two Fitbits, about a third of my tax receipts for the year, various foreign coins, some super glue, and five sachets of ‘mega’ Vitamin C gels. As I’m not exactly big on fruit, the Vitamin C could be helpful. But that’s not why it’s there.

My father died of cancer in February this year. The Vitamin C was part of the stash of pills, medical supplies and supplements I sifted through as part of the surprisingly large amount of posthumous admin. They had come from my mother’s friend. Her husband was dealing with a similar diagnosis and they were hitting it from “all angles”. This meant seminars, research, alternative therapies and a resolutely positive outlook.

Liposomal Vitamin C is just one of the miracle cures touted online, and there are many. All of the cures have their success stories, their fervent believers and sometimes even their medical professionals. The recent outing of cancer-pretender blogger Belle Gibson, bizarre and anger-inducing though it is, is just one symptom of the blossoming industry that surrounds cancer where people sell, sell, sell to make you well, well, well.

When cancer touches you, a lot of well-meant advice comes your way. This isn’t surprising. It’s hard to know what to say, and you want to say something useful. Rather than having to face the stark reality of a terminal cancer diagnosis, a lot of this advice aims to put matters back into your own hands — diet, supplements, positive thinking. No matter how good the intention, most of it makes you feel worse.

When you’re supporting someone who’s sick, you need to feel like you’ve done everything you possibly could do. When we began to make decisions on behalf of my father, we constantly thought we were doing the wrong thing. We should do more, stay awake, another doctor, find that thing that he will want to drink … there were no miracles and so every option seemed wrong. Of course, money paled in comparison to clawing back any kind of time with Dad.

It’s also not easy to figure out what to disregard, because you’re not in a great place to be making a lot of decisions. Plus a lot of it seems tempting. When you’re not a doctor, who are you to say that heaps of oranges presented in a whole new format might not be at least a bit helpful with cancer? Gradually the bit of the cupboard that used to hold the mixers and potato chips fills up with pills and blends and canisters.

Seeing a group of desperate and heartbroken people as a marketing opportunity isn’t just cynical, it’s cruel. Cancer doesn’t just destroy a person, it also lays waste to a lot of the rhetoric of our world. Cancer isn’t doled out in a way that’s equitable or reasonable in accordance with some kind of order. You can earn, floss, exercise, love like you’ve never been hurt, but still get cancer.

People do try to make it make sense. I tried for a long time, and during that time it stopped me from fully realising what was happening. Now when people ask me how old my father was, I can see them doing the sums and weighing up their own odds. Everyone is doing their best to make something scary and seemingly random less so. But everyone needs to be very clear that this is not, is never, a business opportunity.

And the Vitamin C gels? I’ve discovered that when combined with bacon they are mildly helpful in the treatment of hangovers.

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